Claims and counterclaims about a state ballot measure that would require labeling of genetically engineered foods are flying in the runup to the Nov. 4 election, and the same was true of a Corvallis City Club forum intended to provide some clarity on Measure 92.
The four-person panel at Monday’s City Club meeting included one advocate from each side of the campaign and a pair of Oregon State University scientists without ties to either the pro- or anti-Measure 92 camp. Each made a short presentation before the floor was opened to questions from the audience.
Steve Strauss, a distinguished professor of biotechnology at OSU, began the program by saying that several major reports from leading scientific organizations have firmly established the principle that when it comes to food labeling, it’s the product that matters, not the process that created it. In other words, if a genetically modified organism is safe, then the process used to produce that GMO is irrelevant.
Requiring labeling for GMO foods is “fundamentally at odds” with that principle, Strauss said, and could alarm consumers by creating the false impression that genetically modified organisms must be harmful. He also argued that pesticide-resistant GMO crops have helped the environment by reducing the amount of pesticides and tillage needed to grow them.
OSU economist Bill Jaeger said consumers need product information in order to make purchasing decisions that result in efficient allocation of resources and the proper operation of the marketplace, though he added that “sometimes the cost of the information can be higher than the benefits.”
He noted that studies have documented yield improvements in insecticide-resistant crops (with less persuasive evidence of similar gains for herbicide-resistant crops). The economic benefits from GMO corn, soybean and cotton, Jaeger said, amounts to an estimated $30 billion a year.
On the other hand, he said, there can be costs associated with the documented risk of GMO crops escaping into areas where they are not allowed (such as the GMO wheat found last year in Oregon).
Jaeger said the cost to consumers of labeling required by Measure 92 would be between $1 and $3 per person per year, not hundreds of dollars per person as claimed by opponents, calling those assertions “not credible.” The $30 billion in economic benefits attributed to GMO crops, he said, works out to about $7 per person per year.
And not labeling, he pointed out, can also carry a price of sorts: “It is hard to put a value on individuals’ inability to know what they are buying.”
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Colin Cochran, principal of Hilltop Public Solutions, spoke on behalf of the No on 92 Coalition, while retired OSU and Environmental Protection Agency biochemist Ray Seidler represented the Yes on 92 campaign. The two provided conflicting information and repeatedly challenged each other’s statements, while neither would reveal details about the sources of their funding.
Cochran called 92 “a badly written measure that fails on its fundamental promise to provide (useful) information to consumers.” He argued that two-thirds of the products consumed by Oregonians would be exempt from the measure and that anyone who wants to avoid GMO foods can simply buy products that are certified organic or labeled GMO-free.
He also disputed Jaeger’s claims, asserting that the measure would take hundreds of millions of dollars to implement and would indeed cost Oregon families hundreds of dollars a year.
Seidler countered that consumers have not experienced food price increases in the 64 countries that have already adopted labeling requirements, including Japan and many European nations. He argued that big corporations are trying to scare Oregon voters by repeating unwarranted cost claims in anti-92 advertising.
“The issue before us is transparency and lack of information about food we consume,” he said. “We have the right to know.”
Cochran and Seidler also dueled over whether GMOs are safe for human consumption, whether they damage the environment, and even over the minimum amount of GMO content that would trigger Measure 92’s labeling requirement.
Despite the conflicting information, however, Monday’s presentation appears to have helped some people make up their minds on Measure 92.
In a straw poll conducted at the beginning of the City Club meeting, 16 people said they would vote for Measure 92, nine said they planned to vote against the labeling measure and 19 said they were undecided.
After the meeting, 17 people said they would vote for 92, 20 said they would vote against it, and only seven remained undecided.